At first acquaintance this cruiser/racer seems curiously at odds with itself – until you get behind the wheel. Matthew Shehan sails the Italia 11.98
Italia 11.98 review: This Alfa Romeo of the seas strikes a fine balance
I’m a soft touch for a well-balanced boat with a light feel and the ability to change gear easily. Be it it a cruiser or racer, performance and handling are, to my mind, essential aspects in any design. And while the accommodation is important, what happens below decks always comes second in my book.
So perhaps it was of little surprise that the Italia 11.98 and I got on so quickly. This is a boat that is silky smooth and light on the helm, responsive and comfortable to steer. The kind of boat where the autopilot will get little use and where the main trigger for any tension among the crew will stem from whether someone has been hogging the wheel.
This is also a boat that is as much fun and rewarding to sail in light conditions as it is when the breeze gets up thanks to its balance. But this is also a boat that is very confusing.
It might sound clichéd, but from the first time I saw the Italia 11.98 there was something about it that really appealed, I just couldn’t figure out what it was. When you first see the 11.98 you think you have it sussed: it’s clearly a modern cruiser/racer. But gradually you notice details which seem to suggest it’s maybe not that modern at all. And then you begin to wonder if it really is a cruiser…
For example, what modern cruiser today has maximum beam amidships with a full and rounded hull that rolls under the boat to form heavily flared topsides aft? Then there’s that odd looking chine towards the stern that looks like a last minute fold to ensure the hull meets the deck. Viewed one way it looks very cool, viewed another, dated. So what’s going on?
The name tells you nothing, apart from its length, while the brochure copy describes the company’s goal as creating ‘stylish yachts to sail fast, safely and comfortably in all weather’. To be honest, I’d guessed that already.
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Yet, having tested a great deal of boats across all kinds of ranges and styles over the years, I find that every now and then one creeps up on me and gets under my skin for no obvious reason. The Italia 11.98 is one of those and as I dug deeper into this boat’s backstory I began to understand why.
Putting the puzzle together
In today’s style-conscious world where shocking appearances have become as much a selling tool as hitting the right price point, there is a theme for the contemporary look. A plumb or a reverse raked bow, full sections forward that open into slab topsides, an aggressive chine and twin rudders are frequently part of the modern mix.
On the other hand, there are design details that are as compatible as the parts from separate jigsaw puzzles that simply weren’t meant to fit together. A modern plumb bow, racy, raked, frameless portlights that were popular in the 1990s, a reverse counter stern from the bluewater cruisers catalogue, flared sections aft from the grand prix scene and T-style fin and bulb keel are surely never going to work as one.
Yet this is exactly what Italia Yachts did with its 13.98. A model that proved to be a stunning looking, award winning cruiser. The message is clear, this modest Italian builder in Chioggia, near Venice, does things differently.
In 2013, just two years after the company had been founded, the 13.98 broke all the rules and walked off with four major titles including the prestigious European Yacht of Year award in the Luxury Yachts category. A couple of years later in Barcelona an Italia 9.98, Low Noise II, won its class at the ORC World Championships and heads turned immediately.
The following year another 9.98 took the ORC Worlds title again as the Dutch Bachyachting Racing Team headed home with the silverware. For a company that had set up to major in performance cruisers they were now in the racing spotlight and top five results in the 2017 and 2018 Worlds proved the company’s earlier successes were no fluke.
The 9.98 was aimed primarily at Mediterranean racing, and one of its key strengths was its ability to change gear quickly as the notoriously light winds built into stronger conditions, and vice versa. And while this was clearly a recipe for success in a racing boat, those back at base believed that a sophisticated and seamless gearbox was also an asset for a cruiser as well.
So when it came to the design of the Italia 11.98 several of the 9.98’s key features were included. No sooner had the first 11.98 been launched in 2019, the company was back on the world stage as Ott Kikkas’s Sugar 3 won the ORC Worlds in Croatia in a highly competitive fleet of 50 boats.
Whether for racing or cruising, designer Matteo Polli, along with Italia Yachts’ in-house design team, believe that a good Mediterranean boat needs to keep drag to a minimum with a low wetted surface area. Keeping the waterline length short and the waterline beam narrow helps achieve this and leads to a fine entry in the bow, an overhang at the stern and aft sections that quickly tuck in under the deck, hence the flare.
Then, with fuller lines amidships and the pointy ends that have resulted, the Italia 11.98 was balanced around the middle, which makes it easier to trim fore and aft and lift any draggy aft sections out of the water in light airs. The full shape of the sections amidships also help to build righting moment quickly as the breeze builds and the boat heels, by which time the 11.98 trims down by the stern.
These classic lines are wrapped up in a modern style that results in an underwater section that looks far fuller than you might expect of a modern design.
On deck and under way
Once you’ve seen this, it is easier to spot the physical clues on and below deck that point to this refined hull shape. The most obvious is the rudder stock, which is further forward than you’d expect aboard a typical cruiser/racer and ensures that the top of the single rudder (yes, single) never gets close to the water’s surface where it might suck down air and cavitate, increasing drag and reducing control. This is a key contribution to the excellent feel on the helm.
On the standard version, the Italia 11.98 comes with tiller steering, (twin wheels are an optional extra), which illustrates clearly how far forward the rudder is with the helm position close to the primary winches.
Elsewhere the layout is fairly standard. The German mainsheet system runs back to just ahead of each of the twin wheels and within comfortable reach for both the helmsman and the mainsheet trimmer. The cockpit itself is wide and spacious with the option to fit or remove a pair of cockpit lockers depending on whether you’re racing or cruising. Ahead of these, the primary and pit winches are in the usual place.
When it comes to the sailplan, a 9/10th fractional rig is used with twin aft swept spreaders, discontinuous rigging and a full width chain plate base. No surprises there, yet it is the subtle distribution of sail area that contributes to the carefully planned balance of this boat.
To achieve this the high aspect ratio sailplan, with its minimally overlapping headsail, includes a mainsail with a mini square-top headboard which, combined with a decent roach, allows a good sized mainsail to operate within a single backstay.
The standard spec includes an alloy mast and boom and 1×19 wire rigging, which is 40kg heavier than the rod-rigged Axxon carbon spars version. Yes, going composite costs a whopping €37,400 more, but surely it would feel wrong to hamper a boat that has so much going for it with the motoring equivalent of a set of cheap remoulds rather than the sporty set of low profile tyres on wide alloy rims that this boat deserves.
While you’re ticking option boxes it would be as well to include the fixed carbon bowsprit. It adds €5,000 but you’ll need it to fly your A-sails off. (Those racing the Italia 11.98 have found success by carrying both symmetrical and asymmetrical sails.)
In light winds that started at 5 knots we slipped along at 3.8 to 4.0 knots upwind. As the breeze started its slow build and 6 knots slipped across the water’s surface, we matched it with boat speed with the A2 set off the fixed bowsprit as we squeezed all we could at around 110° true.
From there the breeze built gradually to a peak of around 10 knots in the odd gust, giving us the opportunity to get into 7.0-7.5 as we dropped the bow a few degrees as the apparent wind angle started to swing further forwards.
Such conditions do nothing of course to reveal what the Italia 11.98 would be like in 20+knots in a steep, breaking sea as you approach a fateful gybe, but the ability to trim the balance on the helm so easily provided as good an indication as I could hope for.
From the perfectly arranged helmsman’s spot on the side deck behind either of the twin wheels, you could feel the balance through your fingers and drive the Italia 11.98 with ease. On tight angles and upwind at least, with a mainsheet traveller that runs across almost the full width of the cockpit close to hand, you can tweak that fine balance and feel instant results.
One issue that left me with mixed feelings was the non-slip on deck which, while being very effective, was also pretty aggressive. Having said that, being able to move about securely was a benefit made easier by the good proportions of the cockpit and the provision of shallow deck capping mouldings.
On the construction front there is little to report out of the ordinary. The hull and deck are hand laid E-glass/vinylester laminate with a 30mm foam core. Below the waterline a solid laminate runs along the centreline and around the keel and rudder areas. Main structural loads are carried by a composite sub-frame that includes carbon unidirectionals for some of the key structural members.
Anything but ordinary
While I might have thought I didn’t care too much about what the accommodation looked like, that was before I saw it for real. Once again the layout drawings do little to prepare you. A conventional symmetrical configuration with twin cabins aft, a galley to port and a navigation station to starboard just ahead of the companionway steps suggest nothing unconventional.
Beyond this, a symmetrical saloon and a double cabin in the forepeak do nothing to change your mind. Yet in reality, this boat is anything but ordinary. Immaculate gloss white surfaces dominate the headliner, inside faces of the hull, worktops and cabinets to give the kind of dazzling freshness you’d expect on the other side of the Pearly Gates.
On the Bellissima version we tested, soft vanilla lighting floods evenly from behind the minimalist tan leather-faced lockers in the saloon and out from beneath the bunk fronts. As Italia’s website and brochures illustrate, other colours and combinations are available for the interior as well as a carbon faced version – all are stunning. Having said that they are still a €21,700 option, but its an option that’s difficult to ‘un-see’.
The keel-stepped mast passes through the aft end of the fixed folding leaf table in the saloon providing an indication as to just how far forward the saloon is sited in this boat. With the mast your new datum, you quickly realise how the weight has been centralised. From the bulk of the saloon to the navstation, galley, batteries etc. they’re all pretty close to the centre, improving performance in a seaway while making it easier to trim the boat fore and aft.
When it comes to trim from side to side, the accommodation has been deliberately designed to be symmetrical to allow for stacking of sails and crew when racing offshore.
But the saloon does feel narrow and makes you wonder how cluttered things could get with sails and kit turning the accommodation into an assault course for those going forwards to haul down and pack the kite.
In terms of the overall quality, the Italia 11.98 is well built and well finished with a sturdy feel all round, and while it’s impossible to assess robustness over the course of one light airs boat test, the attention to detail in the areas I could see was impressive.
When it comes to competition, the 11.98 is in the thick of it with plenty to fend off in the 38-40ft market. With a price tag that starts at €220,000 excluding tax and rises to €317,000 in its full racing spec, the Italia 11.98 is in good company but does come with the benefit of a proven racing pedigree.
Under the bonnet the Italia 11.98 is an easy boat to figure out – it’s an ORC/IRC racer with accommodation. It doesn’t feel or look like your average production cruiser and to think otherwise would be to suggest that a Jaguar F-Type convertible would make a good family shopping car. In Southern Europe it does, of course, as the roof is never up, making the weekly load easy to get on board. And that’s the point with the 11.98. Blessed with better conditions, Mediterranean owners have always been happy to be seen cruising in elegant, racy designs that can deliver the performance their looks and reputation give out. The bottom line is that this boat will appeal mainly to those with some kind of racing in mind with the odd cruise thrown into the season once or twice. If this boat was a car it would be an Alfa Romeo Giulia Quadrifoglio – bold, sleek and fun from the minute your hands grab the wheel.